Tom Morello on His New Album (‘As Much of a Life Raft and an Anti-Depressant as Anything Else),’ Social Media, the Chicago Cubs and More (The Interview)

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Rock Cellar Magazine

As the years roll by, Tom Morello rages on — and this week, the guitarist/SiriusXM radio DJ/icon known for his musically rebellious body of work with Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and a host of other projects releases The Atlas Underground Fire, a new solo album featuring a number of special guest musicians. Largely recorded via innovative technological means during the pandemic, it’s an adventurous collection of songs showcasing a variety of different styles.

The Atlas Underground Fire is the follow-up to his 2018 album The Atlas Undergound, and finds Morello collaborating with the likes of Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen, Bring Me the Horizon, Phantogram, Damian Marley, Chris Stapleton, grandson, Mike Posner and more.

In the build-up to the release, Rock Cellar caught up with Morello on the phone for a lively chat about a number of topics — among them this album project, how he filled his time during the pandemic, the pitfalls of social media and much more.

Rock Cellar: I would ask what kept you grounded and focused during the weirdness of the last two years but it seems that it’s all the work that went into this album, right?

Tom Morello: Absolutely. This record was as much of a life raft and an anti-depressant as anything else. You know, from the time I was 17 until March of 2020, I was pretty much nonstop making, playing, writing, recording, jamming music, and then it all came to a screeching halt, during a time we’re in the midst of a plague and sort of political upheaval.

And it was really through finding a way to forge this global collaborative community making songs, and with it the anticipation that I was going to be able to put them out and communicate with the wider world that made me … it really was a life raft.

Rock Cellar: It also lends itself to the image of you, Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen emailing each other MP3s back and forth.

Tom Morello: I mean, my gosh. Nobody could have predicted such a thing but yeah, that happened. [laughs]

Rock Cellar: It’s a pretty fun way to start the record, too. And the record goes through a lot of different moods. You have the Phantogram song, which fits their vibe very well, you have the AC/DC cover. I think the one with Bring Me The Horizon is going to surprise a lot of people and definitely appeal to a lot of Bring Me The Horizon fans as well.

Tom Morello: Yeah, I mean, that’s a jam. They’re really flying the flag for rock and metal in 2021 and beyond. The way I look at it is, I steadfastly believe the electric guitar is probably the greatest instrument ever invented by humankind. But I believe it’s an instrument that has a future, and not just the past. Making this record with these diverse collaborators, kind of fearlessly stepping from one genre to the next with my guitar as the divining rod, is for me a way of challenging myself.

It’s my 21st studio album, pushing my guitar where it hasn’t been, but also also trying to make signposts for this tremendous incentive to move forward and not be mired in tradition.

Rock Cellar: And even with an artist like grandson, I saw him open for Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park. He is kind of carrying the flag, too, of the kind of stuff that Rage has always been about, the social justice issues … he’s extremely vocal about all that. So it’s a great fit.

Tom Morello: It is, you know, and again it’s finding these artists who are authentic and really mean it. And he’s definitely one of them that has both the intellect and the rock energy, you know, the Holy Spirit of rock and roll.

Click here to pick up The Atlas Underground Fire on CD from our Rock Cellar Store
Click here to pre-order The Atlas Underground Fire on 2-LP from our Rock Cellar Store

Rock Cellar: The final track is the one that it goes on for like eight and a half minutes. And it I think you worked with a Palestinian DJ. The liner notes said you recorded the vocal parts on your iPhone voice memo, which I’m using right now for this interview. So that’s also indicative of how this all came about.

Tom Morello: 95% of the guitars on this record were recorded on the voice memo of my phone. And that song was no exception. Sama’ (Abdulhadi), she actually mixed that song during the Israeli bombing of Palestine, while that was going on. So it was a hectic time, and she would disappear for a few days at a time. And I’d be like, “are you okay?” But yeah, I have a nice studio at my house, but I don’t know how to work it. There was always an engineer there. And during lockdown, there was no engineer there.

Inspiration came from very unlikely place. I read a Kanye West interview where he said he uses the voice memo of his phone [to work on songs], and I was like, “that’s crazy!” And so I just started recording my guitar into my phone sending off these voicemail guitar tracks. Like my phone sitting on a folding chair in front of my Marshall stacks. And the tracks were fantastic. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, wait. We’re not just continuing to play music, there’s a way to make a record here.”

Rock Cellar: For a record like this that’s so unorthodox in its creation, how do you know when it’s “finished”?

Tom Morello: I sent the first couple of tracks to the producer, and in 15-20 minutes of me sending him the tracks, he sent back the FaceTime or whatever of him working on them, and it sounded HUGE. At that point, it made me think, “OK, there’s a way through this.”

In the middle of each of these, you know, it was around that time when every day felt like it was exactly the same, right? I would go up to go into the studio, with no preconceived notions of what was going to happen on that particular day, hit the red button on the voice memo on my phone, come up with three, four or five, six riffs and just sit there and go, “who am I going to send this to?” Like, it might be Bring Me the Horizon in Brazil? It might be Refused in Sweden. It might be Damian Marley in Jamaica, you know, it might be Eddie Vedder in Seattle. And that was how the record was made, both alone and with this global community of collaborators.

Rock Cellar: The difference between how music’s made now and how it was in the past — recalling those Rage albums with that disclaimer of “every sound here was made by guitar, bass, drums and vocals — it’s pretty trippy to think about the difference.

Tom Morello: Yeah. The way I look at it, guitars are not just the past, you know. Trying to have my guitar be the divining rod that finds that future is a real goal. This is like my 21st record and a whole bunch of those records were four guys in a room, which is fantastic. But I’m looking for way to create an alloy between those huge riffs, the crazy guitar sounds and who knows what, you know, as a way of of marching the guitar forward.

Rock Cellar: And that’s pretty much how you’ve been even when you’re not making albums. Because you have the Sirius XM show where you always talk about your influences and your music, you bridge the gap, you play new stuff, old stuff, Rage, Audioslave, the Nightwatchman. That’s kind of what you’re all about lately.

Tom Morello: I didn’t wake up one morning and go like, “hey, I want to be a radio DJ.” I’ve got to fill 18 hours a day trying to keep the grandmas alive and the kids from going crazy and the dogs from shitting in the living room, you know? [laughs]

Rock Cellar: Which still happens anyway, of course.

Tom Morello: Yeah [laughs]. But it really was like another way to, you know, communicate beyond these walls while alone, to be able to connect. And whether it’s playing global DJ or being a global collaborator, it really felt a lot less alone during those times and a way to sort of inflict my musical tastes on the world.

Rock Cellar: Rage hasn’t made music for a while, obviously but the band was set for a huge sold-out tour with Run the Jewels when COVID ruined all that, as well as a Coachella performance. But it feels like, and especially in the time since, that everything Rage stood for is still relevant — and continues to get more relevant by the day as well.

Tom Morello: Yeah, you’ll you’ll get no argument from me, and fingers crossed we’ve got the tour for 2022. I just hope it’s safe out there to play shows, you know. I want shows to be joy and celebration of music and resistance and not something that endangers people that are there.

Rock Cellar: Whether or not you do Coachella in the spring, any shows you do in 2022 are certainly going to feel pretty explosive, both in terms of anticipation as well as certain things going on in the news. You’ve been posting a lot on social media about real-world issues going on, such as what’s been happening in Afghanistan and all that. But I think it’s important for people to realize when they see these posts that you don’t pick party lines. You say what you feel, no matter what.

Tom Morello: Yeah. That’s … it’s my curse.

Rock Cellar: And yet, when you started speaking out about George Floyd stuff … you’re one of the artists that still gets hit with that, like, “Why do you have to get political?” stuff on social media.

Tom Morello:  [laughs] Yeah.

Rock Cellar: I wrote an article about that for Rock Cellar focusing on you and Serj [Tankian] from System of a Down and how you guys reacted how to the instant flood of nonsense on social media. And I’ve always wondered … do people just not listen? What do you think a song like “Take the Power Back” is about?

Tom Morello: I think is a testament, in a way, to the power of the music that Serj and I have been involved with. Great rock and roll, there’s no litmus test for enjoying it. That’s part of the challenge. There’s no accounting for fools, and you know, people are gonna miss out on it. Some of the greatest stuff, from Woody Guthrie, from “This Land is Your Land” to you know, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” to John Lennon’s “Imagine” to the entire System of a Down catalog, a number of people don’t know what those are all about. But the converse of that is when you’re involved in music that is powerful and has an uncompromising message along with it, you’re going to draw people in who are not political to begin with. They’ll be exposed to that message. And that can be a life-changing thing.

Editorial: Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and the Fallacy of Demanding That Socially-Conscious Musicians/Entertainers ‘Stick to Music’

Rock Cellar: Recently, I was at one of the Hella Mega Tour shows with Green Day and Weezer and there was a guy there in a specific type of red cap singing along to “American Idiot” and I just felt like this guy didn’t quite get it. It’s a strange scenario to to imagine that you’re there enjoying a song at a concert, and just not grasping the focus of what it was about.

Tom Morello: Yeah, it is. It is. I mean, maybe you should write a couple more articles about it. [laughs]

Rock Cellar: The recent news we had with Afghanistan reminded me of a very vivid concert memory. I was at the Audioslave show at the Warfield in San Francisco either the day we first invaded Iraq or the night before, one of those two, and I remember my mom being ab it concerned about us going at that moment since the news was doing what the news does. That just felt like such an important show, and it’s stuck with me the 20 or whatever years since.

Tom Morello: Yeah, I remember that show very well. And I remember standing on the brink of, you know, what was this horrific disaster. I remember marching in the streets afterwards with Chris Cornell, we went out and joined one of the peace marches, one of the anti-war marches.

Rock Cellar: What did you do recently with Nandi Bushell? Because I saw stuff on her social media and I saw her play “Everlong” with the Foo Fighters a couple weeks ago. She’s one of the breakthrough internet stars of the whole pandemic era and I feel like that’s pretty exciting.

Tom Morello: Oh, she’s spectacular. She and my son wrote a song together. He’s a shredding guitar player. They wrote a song remotely during the pandemic, I produced it and it’s a jam. The future is in solid hands with them.

Rock Cellar: You also participated in Dave Grohl’s show with his mom about rock star moms based on their book. You did that project, there’s a social media photo of your mom and that Black Sabbath Black Lives Matter shirt. You thanked her in the album liner notes. She’s still clearly a big part of everything you do, obviously, as your mom, but also in terms of your art, too.

Tom Morello: Absolutely. She’s my co-host on Sirius XM Lithium and you know, God willing, she turned 98 on October 1. She remains the most popular and radical member of the Morello family.

Rock Cellar: Back in 2016, your Cubs won the World Series. That must have been rather exciting.

Tom Morello: [Laughs] That’s the understatement of the interview.

Reflecting back on it, I think not an insubstantial portion of my identification with the underdog in my life comes from my fandom of the Chicago Cubs. This kind of this kind of ever-hopefulness, dreaming of a world that might one day be. And then when it manifested, it was pretty incredible. My Aunt Isabel, she’s the one that got me into the Cubs and she lived 82 years without seeing it happen. I’d been following the Cubs around during that time, and my poor wife was a single parent raising our two kids at home.

I was in Cleveland when they won and and I called her up and you know, there were tears all around. I said, “You know, I’m not coming home tomorrow,” and she paused like, “I understand.” On the day after I drove to the small town where my Aunt Isabel was buried, in central Illinois, planted a “W” flag on the grave, put my baseball hat on it, popped a bottle of bubbly, read her the Chicago Tribune front to back.

It was like “… and we’re good.”

Rock Cellar: When the pandemic subsides and the Rage tour happens and all that, do you have plans to take the solo stuff on the road?

Tom Morello: No plans yet, but you know, a lot of these songs were written without me actually meeting the collaborators in person right? From Bring Me the Horizon in in Brazil the UK to Sama’ and Palestine, so I can’t wait to shake their hands and give them a hug. That’s a big part of the estrangement of this time, working with this kind of global net of collaborators who I hope to one day actually meet in person.

Rock Cellar: A couple quick questions to close it out, since we’ve covered a lot here. What artists are bands were you never able to see that you always wish you could have seen?

Tom Morello: Randy Rhoads.

Rock Cellar: That’s a very good choice. I’m a little young to have appreciated him firsthand, but the reverence everyone has for Randy Rhoads seems pretty untouchable.

Tom Morello: I would love to have been in the room just to see what that felt like. I worked hard to help get him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s inducted this year. So I think that was long overdue.

Rock Cellar: What was your first concert experience that made you think that you wanted to try it out as a career?

Tom Morello: I actually didn’t start playing until I was 17, but there’s two. The first concert where I felt inhabited by the Holy Spirit of rock & roll was seeing KISS. That was like a euphoric experience. That didn’t make me think that I could do that, though. It was seeing the Clash that made me realize that I could do that — and [specifically] Joe Strummer, I saw them play in Chicago and he had this little Music Man amp on a chair, on stage. It was the exact same crappy Music Man amp that I had on a chair in my mom’s basement. And then all of a sudden, I wasn’t like, “I’m gonna do this in the future,” I was like, “I’m doing it. He’s doing it. We’re both doing it.”

Rock Cellar: What song do you wish you wrote?

Tom Morello: Lyrically, I’ll go with … Oh man, let’s go with with Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Musically, I love the riff, “I’m Broken” by Pantera.

Rock Cellar: You said “I’m Broken,” and that one immediately popped into my head, so there you go. That’s the power of that riff, for sure. Out of all their songs, I feel like that’s one of the more underrated, one of the ones you don’t hear as much as you hear “Cemetery Gates” or “Walk” or whatever.

Tom Morello: Yeah, it’s different. It’s different than anything else in their catalogue. Like it’s like sort of that pentatonic, badass timing,

Rock Cellar: With all of the downtime of the pandemic, are there any TV shows or movies you’ve particularly enjoyed?

Tom Morello: Yeah, I mean my gosh, I was so pissed that Disney got me to buy into Disney+, and then my kids watched everything on it, everything from black and white Mickey Mouse through every Marvel movie. I mean, some of the more middle of the road ones were fun. I liked Ted Lasso, I liked Veep. I don’t really remember any others, it’s been so long, dude. [laughs]

Rock Cellar: It’s been a long 17 years, it feels like.

Tom Morello: Yes, exactly.

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